When Sudanese refugee Abu Haron first arrived in England in 2010, after clinging to the underside of a schoolbus from Calais in northern France, the teenager found himself at a police station surrounded by people speaking a strange language. He was 16, alone and unable to speak English. Haron said he was terrified British authorities would deport him to his home in Sudan’s Darfur region where war had broken out.
“I felt scared and lonely and lost because I was just sitting there waiting for an interview,” said Haron, now 23. “I didn’t know anything about English. People (were) passing around me and speaking. I didn’t know what was going on, what they were saying,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Though Haron spent the next year studying English and socialising by playing football, he said he had nobody to rely on when he got to London, an overwhelming city compared to the small village in Darfur he fled from when it was razed and burnt to the ground by militias. But then a letter arrived from British woman Anneke Elwes, inviting him on a walk through London’s Hampstead Heath park. The pair were introduced through a befriending service run by British charity Freedom from Torture.
As the mother of two sons who are of a similar age to Haron, 55-year-old Elwes said the young man quickly became part of the family, even celebrating Christmas for the first time with a traditional lunch and an egg-and-spoon race a few years ago. “All the family they welcomed me like their son, and I’m glad I have a mum in England. So many of the migrants they don’t have this chance,” said Haron, sitting next to his “UK mum” at her home in north London. “When you have someone in your life, who even just speaks to you on the phone, it gives you confidence. You’re not alone. It’s a big difference,” he said.
Meeting Haron inspired Elwes to found HostNation, a website that matches adult refugees with volunteer befrienders in their neighbourhood. “For a lot of refugees and asylum seekers the only English people they actually get to meet are officials,” she said. A sense of loneliness and isolation is common among asylum seekers and refugees due to language barriers, poverty, and a lack of social support, charities say.
“We know that refugees and asylum seekers experience isolation – it’s a massive problem,” said Mariam Kemple Hardy, campaigns manager at Refugee Action. “Being unable to speak to your neighbour, let alone make friends beyond that, can be extremely isolating for these people who come to the UK to rebuild their lives.”
Travel can also be difficult for refugees and asylum seekers, since many cannot afford public transport and often walk for hours to access services or to meet friends and families. The British Red Cross said it helped over 14,000 homeless and destitute asylum seekers in 2016 who relied on an asylum allowance of about 36 pounds ($46) a week. There are plenty of families in London who would like to help and ensure new arrivals “see a more positive side to English life,” said Elwes. After launching HostNation in March, she is now starting to match refugees with befrienders across London, a lengthy process that requires referrals from refugee agencies, rigorous screening and reference checks.
“We want other people to benefit and have a rewarding relationship like we’ve had,” said Elwes, as she and Haron smile over the first letters they exchanged six years ago. “Things like being invited into someone’s home or meeting their family can be really special, it can be quite transformative.”